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Interview: Music Helps Soldiers On and Off the Battlefield


Dr. Kip Pegley

Dr. Kip Pegley

Kip Pegley grew up in a musical household. Her father, who served in the Canadian navy, loved music. After doing research in numerous fields, Pegley says she feels like she is returning home, as she explores the therapeutic benefits of music for Canadian military personnel.

Her study appeared in the November 2015 issue of the Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health.

To learn more, AHB reached Dr. Pegley in the school of drama and music at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., Canada.

Ruth Dempsey: You say neurologists are beginning to better understand what happens when we listen to music. How so?

Kip Pegley: Research on the brain has grown exponentially over the last number of years. As a result, we are coming to understand more about how the brain processes music, as well as the relationship between music and memory.

We have known for a long time that music affects us emotionally, but now we have the capacity to measure physiological changes to our bodies when exposed to particular types of music. This can now be done, for instance, by examining our hair follicles, and so we have a much more efficient and quicker way of measuring how our bodies change when we hear a song that triggers memory.

Indeed, recently researchers have reported that music can be even more effective in reducing anxiety before surgery than many benzodiazepines. Not surprisingly, there is now increased interest in how music can be used therapeutically and even replace other forms of medical treatment.

RD: Your study looked at how Canadian troops used music to manage the pressures of deployment. What did you learn?

KP: I knew that music was important for many of the troops, but I had no idea the extent to which many of them relied upon music. As one veteran told me, "I rationed water, food and my iPod battery."

Many listened to music with headphones in barracks as they prepared to go into conflict. This helped them focus and prepare mentally.

Soldiers also listened to music when they were "outside the wire." Many Afghanistan veterans were off base for days and even weeks at a time. Many reported living in exposed areas under constant threat of attack for weeks on end. Music allowed them to create a perceived barrier and allow their nervous systems to find some temporary relief.

I believe this was crucial for many soldiers in avoiding or reducing PTSD. This condition often results from threat and constant hyperarousal. Listening to music was an important strategy for staving off PTSD.

RD: What about musical taste? What songs did they have on their playlist?

KP: Soldiers reported listening to a wide range of music, from rock to country and pop to gospel tunes.

Quite often, mass media depicts soldiers as preferring heavy metal and rap over all others and, certainly, they listened to these genres. One favourite song for many of my interviewees was Breakfast at Tiffany's by the American rock band Deep Blue Something. This is a very fun and uplifting song, one that many of them enjoyed singing together. This is not a song many would expect them to enjoy, and it speaks to the range of the soldiers' musical preferences.

RD: How did soldiers listen to music when they returned home?

KP: Returning soldiers used music in very different ways.

For a number of my interviewees, music became a lifeline. Upon returning home, a number of soldiers felt as though they were continuing to be under attack. Some even described their own family members as unrecognizable. Music provided a constant in their life.

Many returned to listening to songs they enjoyed before their deployment, and this gave them deep comfort.

Some, struggling with PTSD turned to low-arousal music, slower tempos, gentler musical timbres and so on. This helped their nervous systems calm down.

Others, listened to the music they heard during their deployment as a way to feel connected to their colleagues. For many deployed soldiers, their colleagues are like family. The experiences they endured together created a significant bond.

So, as you see, music functioned very differently for a range of soldiers.

RD: This is the first study to examine the therapeutic benefits of music for Canadian soldiers. How might music be used in the future?

KP: For one thing, I would like to see music given to soldiers to help them relax and cope with the stressors of deployment.

And because we now recognize the impact of music on our physiology and can measure that impact, why not use it to help soldiers in advance of their deployments?

What about using music as a therapeutic tool to help soldiers get back in touch – and perhaps resolve – difficult traumatic memories upon the return home?

Quite often in my interviews soldiers would tell me that they probably had very little to say. But once we started to talk about particular songs that were important to them during their deployment, the memory floodgates started to open. I found it amazing. Through music, soldiers could remember events with surprising detail and access the emotions associated with those memories.

Music is hugely under-utilized as a mode for understanding soldiers' relationships to and memories of war.